06 August 2011

modernism at The Festival of Britain 1951-2011

I was too young in 1951 to worry about anything more pressing than jacks and hoola hoops, so I an grateful for the history re-presented in Susan Gilchrist: Festival of Britain 60th Anniversary Exhibition.

The Festival of Britain was a celebration that was held on the South Bank of the River Thames in London from May to Sept 1951. The date was special since the Festival celebrated the centenary of the first ever World Exhibition, held in magnificent Crystal Palace back in 1851.

Transport Pavilion, Festival of Britain

Just a few years after WW2 ended, Britain still laboured under a huge war debt and war-time rationing was still in force. This festival was a concerted attempt to lift the spirits of the nation; it was to be "a tonic for the nation".

But more than that. Much of London was still in ruins from the bombs and redevelopment was badly needed. So the Festival was particularly focused on promoting better-quality design in the post-war rebuilding of British cities.

Construction of the South Bank site opened up a new public space, including a riverside walk, which had been previously been filled with warehouses and pretty tatty housing. I don’t suppose all families were delighted to see their housing go, tatty or otherwise. And opposition to the project came from people who believed that the £8 million should have been spent on housing.

The official opening was in May 1951. The principal exhibition site was on the south bank of the Thames near Waterloo Station. Other exhibitions were held in Poplar East London (Architecture), Battersea Park (Festival Gardens), South Kensington (Science) and Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall (Industrial Power) as well as travelling exhibitions. Outside London, major festival activities took place in widely spread cities like Cardiff, Bournemouth, York and Inverness. The Festival ship HMS Campania took a travelling version of the South Bank exhibition to several ports, including Dundee, Newcastle, Plymouth, Bristol, Belfast and Glasgow. Red double decker buses, filled with festival exhibition spaces, toured Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France.

So how utopian was The Festival? The layout of the South Bank site was intended by the organisers to showcase the principles of urban design that might predict the post-war rebuilding of London and the creation of the new towns. These included multiple levels of buildings, elevated walkways and avoidance of a street grid. Most of the South Bank buildings were International Modernist in style, rather unusual in pre-1939 Britain.

Dome of Discovery, Festival of Britain

The Dome of Discovery was then the largest dome in the world. It was constructed from concrete and aluminium in a modernist style and housed many of the festival attractions i.e exhibitions on the theme of discovery — the Living World, Polar, the Sea, the Earth, the Physical World, the Land, Sky and Outer Space.

Skylon, Festival of Britain

The Skylon was an unusual steel tower supported by cables that became the centrepiece and lasting symbol of the Festival of Britain; it stood on London's South Bank between Westminster Bridge and Hungerford Bridge. The 90 ms high Skylon was built of a steel lattice work frame, pointed at both ends and supported on cables slung between 3 steel beams. Even better, the aluminium louvres over the frames were lit up from within at night.

Royal Festival Hall had initially been launched by the Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1949, on the site of the C19th Lion Brewery building. Built for the London County Council by architect Leslie Martin, Royal Festival Hall visitors were awestruck by the separation of the curved auditorium space from the surrounding building. The building was officially opened in May 1951. The inaugural concerts were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult.

The arts were important, especially sculptures from Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein. And their pieces were spread around, placed on prominent areas around the Southbank. An exhibition of sculptures was specifically organised by the Arts Council in Battersea Park. And there were two exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery as part of the Festival Programme: a display on the History of East London and a separate display of craft and popular art forms.

Note the colossal stone relief by ex-pat Austrian sculptor Siegfried Charoux. This work, The Islanders, was to be read as a symbol of the struggle and resilience of the British people. A temporary work, it was mounted on the side of the Sea and Ships Pavilion and later probably destroyed.

How popular was the Festival? 18 million people visited the 2,000 local events that together made up the Festival of Britain. 55 principal events took place all over the UK, mainly exhibitions and arts festivals. In the five months from May to September, people paid millions of pounds to see the events, making very nice profits for the nation. Profits from the Festival were retained by the London County Council and were used to convert the Royal Festival Hall into a concert hall and to establish The South Bank.

As with many world fairs from 1851 on, The Festival of Britain facilities might well have been pulled down. But when Winston Churchill became prime minister once again in October 1951, he expressed his loathing for the Festival in general and the modernist, so-called socialist architecture in particular. He made it the first act of his newly-elected government in Oct 1951 to clear the South Bank site. Skylon was toppled into the Thames and cut into pieces, on Churchill’s specific orders. The Dome of Discover, which had became such an iconic structure for the public, was demolished and its materials sold as scrap.

So apart from the Royal Festival Hall, the built architecture of the South Bank was destroyed immediately after the events. The cleared site is now the location of the Jubilee Gardens, near the London Eye. Luckily in 1988 Festival Hall was designated a Grade I listed building, the first post-war building to become so protected.

The Festival of Britain created a new audience for architectural modernism. The architects did indeed show, by their design and layout of the South Bank Festival, how modern town planning ideas could be implemented. So it was appropriate that a number of modernist buildings on the main South Bank site became iconic symbols of The Festival. One historian noted that the Festival Style of local modernism did have an impact architecture and interior design in the 1950s, especially in the office blocks and cafes of the New Towns.

Right now (April-Sept 2011) the Southbank Centre London is celebrating the 60th anniversary of The 1951 Festival of Britain. The Royal Festival Hall houses the Museum of 1951, a temporary exhibit featuring memorabilia, artworks, personal histories, models, memories and photographs. Taking pride of place at the festival is John Piper’s mural The Englishman’s Home, a 50’ long celebration of English architecture and one of the only surviving artworks from the 1951 nation-wide festivities.

original designs by Robin and Lucienne Day, displayed in Chichester in 2011
One decorative arts exhibition was held in Pallant House Gallery, Chichester during the first half of 2011. Robin and Lucienne Day: Design and the Modern Interior, consisted of three rooms of Lucienne’s textiles and Robin’s furniture, arranged chronologically and starting with the 1951 Festival of Britain which launched their careers. Believing in the transformative power of modern design to make the world a better place, Robin had designed furniture for the Royal Festival Hall, and had displayed his steel and plywood furniture in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, along with Lucienne’s textiles.

Being a post-WW2 baby myself, the 1950s was my least favourite design era ever, but I very glad Pallant House Gallery displayed the Days’ important work.


Andrew said...

I am struggling to think of some things I like from the fifties. Anodised metal kitchen canisters? Cream brink veneers? Maybe you are right. Not a great period. Aren't we lucky to have a usable southern bank of the Yarra, so we can too can have an artistic Southbank! Oh you say, a casino and a forest of tall buildings is not artistic. Must be an eyes of the beholder thing.

the foto fanatic said...

Ah -the fifties! Polishing machines. You bought floor polish and applied it to the timber flooring, then buffed it with an electric polisher.
Flavored straws. You put them in a glass of milk and sucked, thereby imparting strawberry or chocolate flavor to your drink.
Hoola hoops & jacks - If you were playing with your sisters! :-)
Aeroplane jelly!
Davey Crockett hats!
Movies: Shane & Old Yeller!

Sorry - nostalgia got the better of me. Didn't intend to hijack your post.

Hels said...


I am still delighted now, 60 years later, that the Labour government had the insight and sensitivity to put on a huge post-war, future-oriented show. Millions of people attended the various events and people really did start to talk about future trends in town planning, architecture, design, the arts etc etc. Other people just had a great time in the centres of entertainment.

But I am still angry about Churchill and his conservative cronies. They destroyed something important, something that ordinary people could enjoy and wonder at.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

hehe you didn't :) I suppose people were very grateful that war ended, most men came home again and found jobs, and that rationing was gradually ending.

Ok we didn't like flavoured straws, cream brick veneer homes, laminex table tops and Aeroplane Jelly. But life was full of a brighter future, I think.

BabyBoomer said...

My parents had a formica kitchen table in the early 1950s, along with chairs in tubular chrome and patterned vinyl. I cannot remember if any of us liked the furniture or not. I just remember my mother thought it was very easy to keep clean.

Hels said...

Hels gives the secret babyboomer handshake :)

Robin Day's furniture employed very sensible materials and very neat designs for the job at hand. Formica laminate was very long lasting and easy to clean; the tubular metal legs made lifting the chairs easy; and in smaller houses after the war, the layout of the furniture in the kitchen could be more flexible and less spacious.

No wonder he was considered cutting edge modern.

Hermes said...

Sounds like we could do with something like that now. For me it would be much better than a useless Olympics. I was born in 1953 so the 60's was my generation really.

Hels said...


I wonder if some people thought the Festival of Britain was a waste of time and money back in 1951, just as many Brits think the 2012 Olympics are useless. Houses were pulled down, money was diverted away from more urgent uses and the jobs that were created weren't permanent jobs.

You will have to see if the Olympics eventually add far more to the economy than they cost.

On the other hand, if people in 1951 were not focused on economic impacts but focused instead on raising national morale, implementing technological advances and teaching about modern design, perhaps the Festival of Britain succeeded (whatever happened to the economy). It is still being debated in the history journals.

Anonymous said...

I know that world fair structures are often demolished afterwards, but this seems such a vindictive dismantling, doesn't it?

Hels said...


At the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937, the works were selected for sale or destruction if they were modernist, Jewish, Bolshevik and not reflecting German traditions.

In 1951 the Festival of Britain the facilities were destroyed because they were modernist, socialist and not reflecting British traditions.

Wasting precious community resources didn't seem to be as important as political values, in both cases.

Hels said...

I have added a link to Caroline's Miscellany blog and her super post on the Festival of Britain's double decker buses.

John Hopper said...

There was a staggering amount of small-minded pettiness concerning the end of the Festival. As you say, Churchill and the Tory party were adamant that every vestige of the Festival be obliterated, publicly if possible. I don't think Churchill ever forgave the Socialists for forming the first government after the war, and this was at least a partial public revenge.

I must also disagree with Andrew. The fifties gave Britain, at least, some of the best textile design work it has ever produced. Much of the work still appears stridently contemporary.

Hels said...

many thanks.

I am not sure it was just small-minded pettiness that caused the destruction of a really important, nation-wise exhibition. It seems like a rather vicious attempt to rewrite history from a conservative view point, eliminating almost everything that ordinary working families could participate in and enjoy.

Apart from being politically nasty, it was also showing an astonishing blindness to the sense of depression and loss that followed the 1939-45 world war.

Hels said...

I have added a reference to the blog called "Lost London". It gives useful information about the building of Skylon and its destruction.

Art&Design Blog said...

Churchill did his Battle-of-Britain best to shoot the vision of Skylon down in political flames.

And, yet, images of this ethereal, beautiful and endearingly fascinating Supersonic-era sculpture have haunted architects, artists, designers and engineers over the past six decades. The Skylon stood on a site by the River Thames in a direct line with the London Eye, the enormous big-wheel designed and promoted by the architects Marks Barfield in a style very much influenced by the Skylon itself.

Will Skylon return, or won't it, to London's South Bank?

Hels said...

Art and Design

what a great reference, thank you. But it was written in 2008. Has progress been made towards rebuilding Skylon since?

Hels said...

To examine Lucienne Day as a textile designer, visit the blog "Where Five Valleys Meet": https://wherefivevalleysmeet.blogspot.com/2018/04/.

Lucienne's designs brought joy and colour into domestic homes, following the austerity of the war years.